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The Subtle Messaging of Designers, Royals at King Charles’ Coronation

by News Desk

LONDON — It took a lot of savvy to compete with all the regal ermine, purple satin and gold lace at Westminster Abbey, but some of the biggest names in British design managed it, balancing tradition with style, and sending powerful messages with their designs for the coronation.

Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen and Bruce Oldfield, in particular, had to build outfits that could hold their own under the ceremonial capes, robes and regalia. They had to weave personal and British symbols into the clothing and create silhouettes simple enough to showcase heavy-duty accessories such as the crown jewels, and other royal heirlooms.

Most importantly, the designers had to ensure their creations made a statement on the day — and for posterity.

And there was no statement more powerful than the Princess of Wales’ leafy headpiece, crafted from silver bullion, crystals and silver threads. The elegant, sharp-edged band resembled the laurel crown of Julius Caesar, and was a fearsome statement-maker. It sent a “Don’t mess with me” style message from the recently-promoted royal, who is likely to be Britain’s queen one day.

The Princess of Wales could easily have worn a family tiara, but instead chose to commission the headpiece, which was made by the British milliner Jess Collett in collaboration with McQueen’s Sarah Burton, her go-to designer and the woman who made her wedding dress in 2011.

Britain’s Catherine, Princess of Wales arrives at Westminster Abbey in central London on May 6, 2023, ahead of the coronations of Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla.

POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The Prince and Princess of Wales have made clear they are independent-minded, modern royals, in touch with their subjects and with the issues of the day. They want to be seen as compassionate changemakers, advocates for British charities and people, and strong parents to their three children.

The princess paired her leafy crown with an ivory silk crepe gown embellished with silver bullion and embroidery featuring rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock motifs, symbolizing the countries that make up Great Britain: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Around her shoulders was the red and blue Royal Victorian Order Mantle.

The entire ensemble nodded to Lee Alexander McQueen’s past designs, in particular the fall 2008 show “The Girl Who Lived in the Tree.” Just like the models on McQueen’s runway, the princess’ coronation outfit was red, white and blue, and topped with the glittery headpiece.

Burton also created a “mummy and me” matching outfit for Princess Charlotte, Kate Middleton’s only daughter.  

Burton topped Charlotte’s flowing, white dress with a capelet that featured the rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock motifs similar to those on her mother’s dress. Charlotte wore white mary jane shoes and a smaller version of the Princess of Wales’ headband, a further nod to the royal family’s soft power.

The Princess of Wales picked Alexander McQueen once again for the coronation concert, which took place on the grounds of Windsor Castle on Sunday evening. She recycled a bright red McQueen trouser suit as she sat with her family and watched Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Take That perform live.

Oldfield — who designed numerous dresses for Princess Diana through the years — had an even bigger challenge on his hands than Burton, and described the dress he designed for Queen Consort Camilla as “the most important commission of my life.” Yet, like Burton, he also transmitted a message of soft power.

Camilla not only had to stand on the altar in front of thousands of guests and millions of viewers; she also had to don Queen Mary’s Crown with its 2,000 diamonds, including the famous Cullinan IV and V sparklers that Queen Elizabeth II loved so much.

King Charles III and Queen Camilla at the balcony of Buckingham Palace following the coronation on May 6, 2023 in London.

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Oldfield’s gown was ivory, made from a peau de soie silk that was decorated with celebratory bunting done in antique gold and silver thread. The dress featured garlands of abstract wildflowers, daisy chains, forget-me-nots, celandine and scarlet pimpernel, symbols of the royal couple’s affection for nature, and for the British countryside.

In addition, on the underskirt and the cuffs of each sleeve were the flower emblems that represented the four nations of the U.K.

Oldfield told WWD that he’s been designing outfits for Camilla for more than a decade, and that “the dress is a style and silhouette that Her Majesty likes very much. It is sophisticated and appropriate for an occasion of grandeur such as this.”

He added that “the gown reflects a more fluid and modern representation of the king and the queen consort’s affection for nature and the British countryside. I think it is always a good idea to look back at history — not just to the late Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown, but to those before her as well, which I did.”

Jean Seaton, professor of media history at the University of Westminster in London, described the female royals’ outfits as refreshingly simple, elegant — and appropriate.

“They reflected a very modern Britain, and a hopeful Britain,” said Seaton. “There was no bling here. The women were dressed simply and beautifully, and you could tell the designers were thinking about the jobs the women were doing.”

Seaton noted that Camilla’s dress “wasn’t oppressively embroidered,” and thought the bunting added a “certain sort of jollity” and lightness to the silhouette.

She added that the long, ivory dresses that Camilla’s two companions, her sister Annabel Elliot and The Marchioness of Lansdowne, wore were in tune with the mood of the event.

“These were very elegant dresses for mature women. The women didn’t look like mutton dressed as lamb,” she said.

Britain’s Queen Camilla followed by her two companions, her sister Annabel Ellliot and The Marchioness of Lansdowne.

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Designed by Fiona Clare, the British bridal and occasion wear designer, the two companions’ dresses were meant to complement each other, and harmonize with Camilla’s gown. One had a standing collar with hand embroidered detail, while the other had silver edging.

Another British designer, Kim Jones, did double time on the day, designing the Dior men’s morning suit for Prince Harry, and the Fendi dress that Princess Eugenie wore.

Although his two royal clients may have been relegated to the third row at Westminster Abbey, Jones still had a serious job to do.

He had to help Prince Harry look suitably regal in morning dress. The young royal, who renounced his duties to the British crown and whose relationship with his father and brother Prince William have become a global soap opera, can no longer don military uniform for official events, although he can wear his medals and honors.

Jones dressed him in a custom-made black wool and mohair peak lapel vest and tailcoat, gray wool and mohair trousers, a white cotton shirt, and a gray silk tie.

Dior may have seemed a left-field pick for Harry, who isn’t exactly Mr. Fashion, but his wife Meghan Markle loves the brand, and most likely made the introduction.

Princess Beatrice, her husband Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi and Prince Harry in his Dior morning suit.

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Jones had another challenge in dressing Princess Eugenie, who is heavily pregnant with her second child. With his Fendi hat on, Jones designed a navy silk and satin mid-length dress with a plisse side-panel.

He also whipped up a navy and dark blue double-sided cashmere coat with a matching, embroidered obi belt. The pregnant princess also wore Fendi accessories, including a dark blue leather Fendi ISeeU Peekaboo bag with 3D leather roses; navy leather heels, and Swarovski embroidered navy silk and satin gloves.

Members of the royal family weren’t the only ones parading their finest, or sending messages with their clothing.

Some chose to make political statements, while others opted for a rainbow of refreshing pastels to mark the occasion.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and her granddaughter Finnegan Biden walked into the abbey wearing colors matching those of the Ukrainian flag.

Biden, who was attending on behalf of her husband, President Joe Biden, wore a Ralph Lauren periwinkle blue jacket with an asymmetric neckline; a knee-length pencil skirt, and matching gloves. She accessorized with a petit bow hat, a pair of cream heels, and a square clutch bag that matched her shoes. 

Finnegan Biden wore a long, cream yellow cape dress by Markarian. She completed her look with a yellow floral hairband and a small vanity case-style bag.

U.S. first lady Jill Biden, and her granddaughter Finnegan Biden ahead of the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla on May 6 in London.

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Carole Middleton, the mother of the Princess of Wales, and Pippa Middleton, the princess’ sister, also appeared together in blue and yellow.

Others who plumped for pastels included Queen Rania of Jordan, who wore a yellow silk crepe tailored pencil dress with a bow collar by Tamara Ralph Couture.

Sarah Chatto, the daughter of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, wore a Jasper Conran belted dress in ivory and cream, and a hat by Stephen Jones.

Crown Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece wore a custom-made baby blue dress by Mary Katrantzou, and carried the “In Search of Lost Time” clutch bag by Olympia Le-Tan.

Katy Perry, who performed at the Windsor Castle coronation concert on Sunday night, opted for a pale lilac suit and hat by Vivienne Westwood, a designer who, despite her anti-Establishment reputation, actually admired the royal family, and King Charles III in particular.

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